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Water Update

Article by John Orr

Water – August 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel

The relief well for the Leadville Mine Drainage Tunnel came on line late in June. Peter Soeth from Reclamation said, “The plant is now treating between 2000 and 2100 gallons per minute,” combined flow from the LMDT and the relief well.

That volume is close to the capacity of the plant. The relief well is one part of the EPA’s preferred alternative for draining the mine pool in that area of the California Gulch Superfund site.

Reclamation presented the final draft of their risk assessment on July 1st during two meetings in Leadville. They looked at seven possible scenarios identified by their consultants and in-house experts and determined that there is very little chance of a blowout of the type that the EPA personnel warned about in a November letter.

The potential for loss of life referred to in the letter alarmed the Lake County Commissioners and led to a disaster declaration earlier this year.

Reclamation plans to install water pressure monitors in their monitoring wells. The monitors will alert operators to a rise in pressure consonant with a release of water behind the upper blockage. Reclamation is confident that the work they’ve performed in the area of the lower blockage — along with the cushioning effect of the water that is backed up behind it — would stop any surge of water through the tunnel’s portal.

According to Reclamation water may seep from the ground in places and more voids may open up (as they did under Highway 91 in the ’70s) but any additional water from the tunnel itself will discharge slowly with plenty of time available to assess the danger and respond.

Reclamation is also updating their emergency response plan. Bob Pike, Reclamation dam safety expert, says keeping their plan up to date is, “standard operating procedure” at the agency for all their dams. They are using the same analysis and planning methods for the LMDT.

Now the EPA has their well above the blockage in LMDT, and with the passage of H.R. 5511 (Lamborn/Udall) in the House and the probable passage of U.S. Senator Ken Salazar’s companion bill (S. 2680), they will most likely get the rest of their preferred option for draining the mine pool in the area known as Operating Unit #6 — a bulkhead and plug just above the upper blockage.

But there is still a rift between Mayor Bud Elliott and the Lake County Commissioners. In Leadville, on July 1st, I asked him if he believed Reclamation’s conclusions, and he answered, “We do,” pointing to some local business people he was sitting with, but added, “Ask those guys over there,” and gestured at commissioners Mike Hickman and Ken Olsen.

A few days later, a letter from Elliot in the Rocky Mountain News, said “…more damage was caused by our county commissioners’ action than could have been caused by the water itself, and it will be a long time before our tourism industry recovers from this manufactured emergency.”

The Alamosa Water System

The Alamosa water system is getting back to normal. The state is requiring them to keep chlorine at about double the normal level in response to the salmonella outbreak earlier this year.

Officials are still not sure of the cause of the salmonella outbreak but have repaired one storage tank and also taken a ground-level reservoir off-line. A new effort is underway to identify potential contamination points in restaurants and other food preparation areas that may have led to cross-contamination. And a new water treatment plant, built to facilitate lowering arsenic levels to new, stricter, EPA standards, is supposed to be activated this month.

As we go to press, the plant is built and ahead of schedule with some minor work still to be finished. Officials hope to deliver water through this new system by the end of July, and to be in full production by the third or fourth week of August.

Black Canyon Minimum Flows

Over 60 groups consisting of environmentalists, irrigators, hydropower interests and sportsmen recently struck a deal over minimum flows in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

Drew Peternell, the Director of Colorado Trout Unlimited’s Colorado Water Project sounded pleased with the agreement, “We were able to keep the shoulder flows and peak flows in the canyon, the 300 cfs minimum, and there is agreement that flows should be managed in a more natural state, rather than being managed primarily for power generation,” he said.

Readers may remember that the 300 cfs minimum flow was the only guarantee in the deal struck between the Department of Interior and the state of Colorado in 2003. Environmentalists sued complaining that the 300 cfs would not maintain the riparian environment during dry years. In 2006 Judge Clarence Brimmer ruled against that deal, calling it “nonsensical,” and Peternell commented at the time, “The deal flatly ignored the science.”

Short Takes

* Don’t forget to check out the new display, “Reservoirs of the San Luis Valley,” at the Saguache County Museum.

* At a recent meeting of the Arkansas Basin Roundtable attendees learned that Lake County’s population is expected to triple in size by 2030 largely due to the re-opening of the Climax Mine. Water needs are now estimated at five times the amount identified in the Statewide Water Supply Initiative.

* The roundtable also approved a request for funding from the Upper Arkansas River Water Conservancy District. They plan to install a system of remote measuring equipment on six reservoirs (stream gauges and weather stations) to help identify exchange windows. It’s hoped that the effort will lead to less conflict and more reliable data since reading equipment can be difficult during the winter months at the reservoir locations.

* Officials are still worried that those pesky Zebra mussels will move into Colorado lakes and reservoirs. Thus, Jefferson Lake is closed to motorized boats as are Rampart Range Reservoir and Antero Reservoir. Inspections are required at Spinney and Elevenmile. Although there are no required inspections at Blue Mesa Reservoir, boat owners are expected to wash their boats at one of the three self-serve cleaning stations. And Pueblo Reservoir has led the way with inspections since the mussels were discovered there last fall.

* The Internal Revenue Service has issued several summonses to the Colorado Division of Real Estate in connection with its investigation into the state’s conservation easement program. Readers may remember that over-valued properties threatened to take down the popular program. Conservation easements help keep riparian environments out of developer’s hands and to preserve unique natural and agricultural lands. Earlier this year Governor Ritter signed HB 08-1353 (Verify Conservation Easement Tax Credits). The bill’s tougher standards include increased accountability for appraisals, a certification program for easement holders along with stronger oversight and enforcement through the newly created Conservation Easement Oversight Commission.

* Happy 100th birthday to the Rio Grande National Forest.

John Orr follows water issues at Please send story ideas and links to jworr [AT] operamail [DOT] com.